THE TUMESCENT ADOLESCENT
By Sy Schechtman
Someone, George Bernard Shaw probably, said that “youth is a shame to waste on the young” but then it is still common wisdom today that parents approach the years of teen age development of their progeny with some apprehension---the terrible teens-- portending stormy, dangerous family weather and discomfort. Often an unhappy, contentious time for both parent and child. And little more than a hundred years ago, while there were the self same actors in the family drama of parent and older child, there was no such character around who was an adolescent, unless from a very wealthy family. Instead we had the almost physical adult but who was denied the status of sensual gratification and responsibility that is inherent in the more commonly associated more mature level of adult hood. These pre adult family members, however, were eagerly employed in many aspects of work production in the city or on the farm. Child labor laws were generally not yet a factor in impeding their hands from contributing to the family budget.
But then these many extra younger hands became gradually less needed, especially in the farm fields. And then the gains in worker productivity in the city and factory became more evident as the industrial revolution gradually became more manifest, first drawing more workers from the farm field to the city factory, and then starting to diminish the overall need for so many hands as worker productivity began to improve due to increased mechanization. The industrial revolution was in full bloom causing much ultimate good but also much temporary dislocation. And child labor, which had been an abundant and cheap source of labor became now a moral debit that had to be discarded. Thus the little red school house on the prairie started to flourish. First as a somewhat primitive multi age situation in one room affair and then slowly the multi complex educational mammoth of today. Thus we had, at the beginning of the 20th century, the term adolescence created by the psychologist G. Stanley Hall, to mark the “definitive term for the elongated hiatus between childhood and adulthood.” This somewhat limbo period of deferred sensual gratification and adult responsibility.
Did the thirst for additional knowledge fuel the role of the schooling expansion, or the explicit need to warehouse these fledgling adults, whose efforts were now less needed in certain kinds of unnecessary labor? Whatever the fundamental impetus, certainly schooling became a part of the mix of activities of increasing numbers of children, young and older, whether impelled by social as well as purely educational need. And as some critics insist, set up in the identical mold of the already existing factory model, with the generally melodious school bell sonority instead of the grim factory whistle or blast to start the day. And soon increasing schooling beyond the initial grades became fashionable. And parents had to proudly attend not only graduation of their primary school child, but even of “high school”, the secondary rung upward on the educational ladder now deemed not only more fashionable but absolutely necessary. And now, of course, this trend has gained steam roller momentum, and the necessary passport to successful adulthood is “higher education”----college of some sort and then even post graduate work , and the prestigious title of “Doctor”, betokening some extra study and specialization beyond the previously premium level of the basic, post high school college degree. But inevitably we are tipping the boat too far off the desired even keel of moderation. Of getting far too much of what we have been hoping and praying for. An overload of too many overtrained expensive specialists and a severe diminution in much needed unskilled or basic skilled workers—electricans, plumbers, construction workers, waiters and restaurant personnel, and all around general “handymen”. And leaving us dolefully susceptible to the following somewhat sarcastic retort proper, when the customer, a busy, relatively prosperous professional, protests the high cost of the electrician’s bill presented to him for work in the professional’s office. “Sure, Doc, I used to feel just like that when I was still practicing medicine.” (Or, of course, any other post graduate specialty.) Only about 10 percent of native born men now drop out of high school, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that 56 million new jobs will be created in the next ten years---half of them needing only a high school education. There is nothing shamefaced about that extra piece of paper called a college degree but sometimes society pays a large but hidden tax on this mass collective lemming like approach prolonging adolescence against the reality of adult life and shedding the protective chrysalis of adolescence.
But nature has provided us with the social dilemma of the biological evolutionary progress of its teen age human creatures being too far advanced for the social and emotional standards that are considered acceptably normal. We have this biologically mature person, male or female, while with not much social or cultural tradition, still at the height of his or her mental acuity and physical strength and coordination and able to successfully procreate, but whose ability to be successful parents is questionable. In prior generations, with the shortened life of all people, considered well able to attain the married state and parenthood in the 18 to 21 range. An acknowledged adult without the further educational hurdles of college and graduate school. Today, however, we have an intensely consumer oriented society luring him or her into the web of main stream adult society. Despite the possibly artificial legal barrier of being “underage”.
Truly the tumescent adolescent. Enticed, lured, and also rejected, repelled. And affluent enough to be able to afford, if given parental backing, many of these consumer wiles. But now gradually becoming part of a youth and separate peer culture and also impelled to reject parental prototypes drastically, the mantra becoming that if “the person is over thirty don’t talk to them”. Some separation and individuation of youth from parent is essential, but maturing youth in our modern society to a large extent has become a counter culture, with a feckless, mature and permissive parental over group that was distressed if not distraught by this “teen age rebellion”. Indeed, peer pressure of adolescent or young adult friends in high school and college can often negate or at least significantly modify one’s heretofore fundamental values and goals if the prior nurture at home was not positive enough.
And sometimes cause tragic confusion and
depression. Teen age suicide is the third leading cause of death in the 15
to 24 age group. Many years ago, when concept
of adolescence was first becoming manifest,
one positive way to channel all
this energy not yet condoned as adult status
was the Boy Scout Movement,
founded in this country about
l911. Its credo included the American Scout
Oath: “On my honor, I will do my best, to do my duty to my God and my country
to keep myself physically strong, to obey the Scout Law, to help other people at
all times, keep myself mentally awake and morally straight. And also “a scout
is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient,
cheerful, thrifty, brave ,clean and reverent”
(With an agenda like that no time
was left for depression or morbidness!)
In rural areas the 4 H clubs had similar very positive
goals, as did the American Girl Scouts ,
founded shortly after the Boy
Scouts. Besides the sterling qualities stressed in
their credos extracurricular recreational outdoor activities such as
camping, woodcraft and the physical skills demanded of the oudoor life in
general were strongly emphasized. By 1916
the Boy Scouts of
And as we go further into current modernity, and away from the relatively innocent innovations beyond conventional schooling at all levels, we have a luxiurant growth of off beat teen age energy in many flavors, including “motorcycle gangs,
rockers, , greasers, beatniks, surfers, mods, hippies, radicals,
punks, and rappers.
An exotic mix but one inevitable in an open democratic society with less pressure to conform and where one’s right to free speech and peaceful
dissent is a touchstone of liberty. In
But the success and fruition of the adolescent experience, its detumescence into the positive young adult, shedding resentments and frustrations and striving upward, will be the result of combined efforts of parents and peers and schooling that has enough firmness, but lack of rigidity and respect for individual uniqueness and personal space. This is an immense task. We have about three hundred million in our nation now, most of them first or second generation immigrants and many, many of them now adolescents with their unique problems of adjustment and in a vary labile environment. The continued acculturation and assimilation of the current young people---adolescents and recent immigrants—will test the enduring strength of our country. So far the Iraqi and Vietnamese Wars—apparent debacles that they were—have not dimmed the loyalty of our citizens even unto valiantly sacrificing their lives again or sustaining serious wounds. That their lives have been apparently wasted is a senseless crime that our level of civilization continually perpetrates, and we have never learned to surmount. And for our nation to continue its leadership in the world and hopefully once again a beacon of peace and stability in the world the model must not be the somewhat narrow image of the “playing fields of Eton” and its upper class implications, although it did encompass some broader spectrum of middle and lower class participation. But for us the “playing field” must be the far broader spectrum of our mass education system starting now with pre school and going on up through the college level---at least.! We have much that is far from perfect, with some imperfections and venal happenings, but until now many million continue to “vote with their feet” by immigrating with the promise of more freedom and economic opportunity here. And while this trend is never a sure thing we have still created the most open society in history with the most faith in the common man. While there is still too much rhetoric and not enough reality it is still an unparalleled accomplishment---so far. Still the greatest place for the struggling adolescent as he passes the bar into adulthood to harvest the many socioeconomic and political fruits our culture has even now available.